Lithuanian Foreign Ministry Gloats, as Yivo’s Position Continues to Confuse

At 10:27 AM Vilnius time today, BNS (Baltic News Service) released the triumphant news from the country’s foreign ministry that ‘A Yivo room is planned at the National Library of Martynas Mažvydas in Vilnius shortly’. As one foreign diplomat put it, off the record, several hours later at today’s commemoration event for the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, ‘The operative word there is shortly’  — signifying a done deal.

There was symbolic significance to the announcement’s timing, coming on the 23 September anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto.

That news, released by the foreign ministry to BNS and quickly processed onward to the international media, was underscored elsewhere in the statement by the triumphant news that ‘Lithuania’s Consulate General in New York and the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research held a solemn ceremony on September 22 to mark destruction of the Vilnius Ghetto. The minister’s address was read at the event, the foreign ministry said.’ The foreign ministry also posted an announcement on its own website, and a version appeared on Isria.

The statement  seemed to cement the new role of Yivo as junior partner in the Lithuanian government’s extensive and expensive effort to invest in Jewish projects at a time when the same government’s prosecution services harass Holocaust survivors, swastikas are legalized, city-center neo-Nazi marches proceed with permits and participation of elites, and the state itself simultaneously invests in an elaborate program of events to glorify the local Holocaust killers of 1941 whom the far right continues to regard as ‘national heroes’.

No other country has an analogous ‘two track Jewish policy’ which the recent Leyzer Ran Family Protest document calls ‘the government‟s schizophrenic behavior towards the Jewish community and its glittering “Shoah Business” tactics seeking tourist dollars and foreign support’.

Some political observers think that the local need to satisfy the antisemitic far right while building alliances with foreign Jewish entities for international status explains only part of the need for the cover which Yivo’s director has unconditionally provided. The other part has more far-reaching consequences. Lithuania’s state-sponsored commission that dominates Holocaust education  is the same one working  to promote legislation in Brussels to downgrade the Holocaust in European history into ‘one of two genocides’. This is an East European right wing cause rooted, among other things, in the desire to deflect attention from and to revise downward historians’ assessments of  the massive local participation (not just collaboration) in the Holocaust which resulted in the Baltic states having the highest percentages of murder of Jews in all of Holocaust-era Europe.

There is no mention in the BNS report that the ‘solemn event’ was to have hosted the foreign minister as ‘guest of honor’, and this was twice changed by Yivo’s leadership in the run-up to the event, first dropping ‘guest of honor’ in favor of ‘his Honorable’ and then dropping the foreign minister altogether and replacing him with the New York consulate’s consul general, Valdemaras Sarapinas.

These changes resulted from the mounting scandal facing Yivo director Jonathan Brent who is felt by many in the Yivo community to have become a fully compliant PR tool in the hands of Lithuanian government operatives out to cover for the serious outstanding Jewish and Holocaust issues with prestigious partnerships, a point first made by the protest letter issued on 6 Sept. to Mr. Brent by the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, one of the world’s last active associations of Holocaust survivors from Lithuania. It is thought that statement provoked the Yivo director to dismissing the voices of Holocaust survivors in his memo of 9 September as ‘helpless’ and ‘ageing’. They are clearly ageing, but this extraordinary episode has brought out voices clearly not ‘helpless’ from survivors, including the 17 Sept. statement released by the office of Hebrew University’s Professor Dov Levin.

Meanwhile, just two days ago, on 21 September, the Forward reported that the Yivo director let it be known that the institute ‘might allow [italics added] Lithuania to maintain custody  of the archive as long as it was made accessible in a special room at the  National Library of Lithuania’. In an earlier 7 September report, Forward reporter Paul Berger recorded the following: ‘”The Yivo board must vote on this, and we are now conducting a full review of  whether the Lithuanian government has demonstrated sufficient credibility as a  partner in good faith to warrant this commitment from Yivo”, Brent wrote in a  September 6 email to The Forward.’

Caving in to Double Larceny: Did Yivo’s Board act between 6 and 23 September?

As of today, it was left unclear whether the Yivo board had — between 6 and 23 September 2011 —  taken the extraordinary decision to capitulate on return of its looted property from an East European government that refuses to return it to its rightful owner. The second capitulation, allowing government nationalists to use the word Yivo in a state sponsored entity in Vilnius, would provide an invaluable public relations tool to counter the image problems caused by the ‘other’ set of concurrent Jewish issue policies.

In their 16 September statement, three generations of the family of the late Leyzer Ran, master cultural historian of Jewish Vilna issued the plea: ‘We also ask that Yivo continue to pursue the return of its looted archives and ask for the swift return of these materials to the one legitimate Yivo, in New York City, which we believe to be their rightful owner and most judicious, suitable guardian.’ has referred to the two-fold capitulation as Double Larceny: looting of prewar Jewish property and a new looting of the magic Yivo brand for the public relations purposes of an East European state.

There is genuine fear in Yivo’s wider community that if the saga is allowed to continue what is left of the magic may not last much longer, and the brand  will be gravely damaged. Holocaust survivor and resistance hero Joseph Melamed, 86, himself the focus of the latest ‘investigation’ by Lithuanian prosecutors, told the Forward: ‘This is killing the reputation of Yivo’. Perhaps, some have remarked in Vilnius, it is not Mr. Melamed and the other Holocaust survivors, unexpectedly betrayed by Yivo, who are so ‘helpless’.

Rumors could be exaggerated

But some of this fear could be very premature. Yivo has not promptly confirmed (or refuted) today’s  BNS report that the Yivo room with the looted property is a done deal and would open in Vilnius ‘shortly’. Clarification will no doubt follow in short order.

In the meantime, some today noted another ironic confluence. While the nominal heir to  Yivo founder Max Weinreich (1894-1969) was in Manhattan singing the praises of present-day Lithuanian government game-masters — masters of a double game, some would say — an American born journalist of Lithuanian origin, Geoff Vasil (Vasiliauskas), who resettled here in Vilnius many years ago, published a short opinion piece in London’s Jewish Chronicle which takes a rather more critical view of things.

In fact, many Lithuanian citizens, of diverse personal heritage, have stood up for Jewish causes with rather more backbone, in some views, than the Manhattan director of a Jewish institution that was founded in their capital city all those years ago.

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